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Critical Theory and the Postmodern

by Doru Lung

Dissertation presented as partial fulfillment for the requirements of the

Master of Arts Degree in Continental Philosophy
Professor Douglas Burnham
Professor David Webb

“Once upon a time, it was the proclaimed principle of great bourgeois philosophy that the youth ‘ought to
be educated not for the present but for a better future condition of the human race, that is, for the idea of
humanity’ (Kant 1922, cited in Marcuse, 1972). Now the Council for Higher Education is called upon to
study the ‘detailed needs’ of the established society so that the colleges know ‘what kinds of graduate
students to produce’” (Marcuse 1972, 27-28).

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey that
psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great, it’s important to have liberal arts...but realize,
you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A’’’ (Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, cited in Mills,
Washington Examiner, October 24, 2015).

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as
people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and
murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That's not the way
the world really works anymore.’ He continued ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our
own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other
new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and
you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
Karl Rove, in Suskind, Ron (2004-10-17). Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. The
New York Times Magazine.

“Can one not make a living without that stupid, exhausting, endless labor -- living with less waste, fewer
gadgets and plastic but with more time and freedom? This century-old question, which has always been
denied by the facts of life imposed by the lords of the earth, is no longer an abstract, emotional, unrealistic
question. Today it assumes dangerously concrete, realistic, subversive forms” (Marcuse 1972 , 23).

Electronic copy available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2960951

1. Introduction

Whether there is such a thing as humanity, for whose better future condition the youth of today,
or of any day, for that matter, ought to, or are able to, be educated, is something that has been
called into question by theoretical developments in the past few decades. Philosophers as
varied as Althusser, Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Derrida, inter alia, espousing a
theoretical anti-humanism, have taken exception to the claim that there is something that can
even be called humanism, and even if there was, that it was oppressive, unhelpful, and should
be combated, or that it was something that would be erased “like a face drawn in sand at the
edge of a sea” (Foucault 1971).

The aforementioned authors, if one is still allowed to call them that in an age of the trace,
simulacra and simulation, hyperreality, intertextuality, and the creation of subjectivity by
complexes of power and knowledge, could certainly not be called apologists for the existing
order, since they were, and are still, seen as radical, critical, and concerned with liberation from
subjugation in their varied ways. Though they are all, other than Althusser, who is labeled a
structural Marxist, brought into any discussion having to do with postmodernism or
poststructuralism, and their theories are by any account critical of existing society and its
oppressive nature, other authors, who carry the flame of critique, have nevertheless labeled
them as young conservatives, who, “emancipated from the imperatives of work and usefulness,
and with modernistic attitudes...justify an irreconcilable anti-modernism (Habermas and Ben
Habib 1981).

While Habermas strives to complete the unfinished project of modernity, which could still
perhaps be salvaged by a Theory of Communicative Action (Habermas 1981), he dismisses
postmodern or poststructural approaches as liquidating any hope of ever completing this
project, thus diametrically opposing himself, as the heir of the Frankfurt School of Critical
Theory, against more recent theoretical developments. Whether it is fair to call an aspect of
French philosophical thought post les événements des Mai 1968 conservative is not exactly
clear, as postmodern approaches are able to be interpreted as radical, concerned with
liberation, anti-establishment, and, above all, critical. Althusser was a convinced Marxist;
Lyotard was a member of socialisme ou barbarie before becoming the founder of postmodern
discourse; Foucault famously fought for the rights of prisoners and against institutions such as

Electronic copy available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2960951

psychiatry; Baudrillard (1995) thought that existing society was not even real; and even Derrida
came around to see Spectres of Marx (Derrida 1994) in his later years. Nevertheless, it can be
discerned that postmodern or poststructural theoretical developments can be appropriated by
conservative forces, as poignantly pointed out by Karl Rove, the presidential aide, in the quote
above, who infamously stated that the Empire created its own reality. One of the difficulties
postmodern approaches pose is the lack of foundation and thus, at first glance, the validity of
any approach being as good as any other. The lament of progressives is exactly that by
destabilizing philosophy, postmodernism has opened the door to equivocation by vested
interests. Thus the question poses itself, whether a critical theory of society is still possible in
the postmodern world, or whether any reality is as good as any other reality, and one should
consequently abide to the power of those who have the ability to create it.

As can be seen from the quote above from the at the time aspiring presidential candidate for the
Republican party in the United States in the 2016 election, Jeb Bush, the humanities are not
held in particularly high regard among the elite of our current political conjuncture. And it is not
only the humanities which are being called into question -- although they have been singled out
for attack in the US, the UK, and Japan (Sinclair 2012). The entire establishment of higher
education in the US and several other countries has seen itself faced with what could be a
daunting crisis that does not see the value of education that is not instrumental, but, rather,
seems to force all who strive for higher knowledge to choose between earning a living in
industries that are deemed to be useful to business or following their consciences and studying
what they deem worthwhile, though with uncertain chances of employment.

Further, with standardized testing having taken over the international educational scene, the
criticism can be raised that students are not being educated in the tradition of Bildung --
education that can enable one to grow and choose his or her own path -- but, rather, students
are being educated in an Ausbildung -- being trained for a vocation that is sought after by
industry and is thus instrumental and not pursued for reasons of edification or personal growth.

With tuition in the US at over $32,000 for private universities, about $24,000 for out-of-state
residents at public universities, and almost $10,000 for in-state residents at public colleges
(CollegeData.com), the ability to go to college in that country seems to be predicated on wealthy
parents or the ability and willingness to take on massive amounts of student loan debt that can

never be discharged -- not even in bankruptcy -- and thus participate in the over $ 1.2 trillion
dollars of student loan debt, a lot of which has been chopped, structured, securitized, and
financialized, much as was done with the mortgage debt which led to the financial crisis of 2008.
While tuition in the UK was only raised to 9000 GBP from 3000 GBP, this is probably not the
end, as can be seen from recent pronouncements by politicians which indicate that further hikes
are in store (Stone, 2015). Are these developments accidental, inevitable, or, rather, part of a
concerted effort to make inequality structural?

Further developments make one question whether this will be the end, since in recent years the
governor of Florida, Rick Scott has even bandied about the proposal to run the state’s
“education system more like a business” to raise tuition for the humanities to subsidize other
majors, which are presumably more desired by business and industry. "The theory is that
students in 'non-strategic majors,' by paying higher tuition, will help subsidise students in the
'strategic' majors, thus creating a greater demand for the targeted programmes and more
graduates from these programmes, as well" (Flaherty 2012). These proposals on education are
in line with other recent developments, which will be listed below. One should keep in mind just
what the message is that is being sent: “learn something that is useful to us, something that will
make us money and increase our power, and nevermind all this fancy nonsense, like philosophy
or other liberal arts: if you want to learn how to criticize, then you will pay dearly for it and be
unemployable.” A quote such as this seems to this author to summarize the intent of power in
the current educational conjuncture.

Other indicators of the rise of capital and the decline of any sense of the common good are:
austerity measures being implemented and public spending on social services or public goods
being drastically decreased; entire countries, such as Greece, being forced to sell off public
assets to international investors; pensions and unemployment benefits being decreased; the
financialization of the economy meaning that finance now is a much larger part of the economy
than previously. These issues have been reported on for several years now. The top 0.1% now
have as much wealth as bottom 90% in the United States (Saez and Zucman 2014), the top 1%
of the world more than the other 99% (Oxfam 2016a), and 62 people have more wealth than
half the population of the entire world (Oxfam 2016b). To illustrate the point, Oxfam points out
that 62 people would fit into one bus and these people have more wealth than the 3.6 billion or
so that make up the latter part of the population of the world. Indeed, we seem to be living in a

new “gilded age”, in which the rich get richer, as brought into evidence by Thomas Picketty’s
Capital in the 21st Century ( Picketty 2014), which shows that the rate of return on capital is
rising faster than the growth of the economy, which will inevitably increase inequality. The
advent of supply-side, “trickle-down” economics since the 1980s does not seem to have
resulted in much “trickling-down.” The financial crisis of 2008, that seems to have returned but
actually never ended, resulted in dozens of trillions of dollars being created, spent, guaranteed,
and otherwise made available to bailed-out speculators, while a narrative of austerity,
government budget cuts, “belt-tightening”, and “there-is-no-alternative” framing was and is being
spun to shocked, baffled, and bamboozled populaces worldwide (Afoko and Vockins 2013). By
an account of the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College at the University of Missouri in
Kansas City, over $29 trillion dollars were spent on bailing out the financial sector in guarantees,
loans, bailout programs, and intransparent purchases of distressed assets, with many losses
being transferred to the public sphere (Felkerson 2011). Despite all this money being created
out of thin air, countries worldwide have decreased spending on social services, support for the
unemployed, pensions, and many other measures that could benefit a large part of the
population, but one that does not have lobbyists or offshore tax-haven accounts.

The illegal, lie-based war started in Iraq by the Bush administration, and the subsequent chaos
and destruction have not only created a hotspot of terrorism and violence in the Middle East and
North Africa, terrorism that seems to creep ever closer, having reached Europe and the United
States, but have also unleashed a seemingly endless wave of refugees upon the shores of
Europe, rekindling a racist, right wing discourse thought long overcome. The resultant violence,
militant discourse, claims of civilizational decline and cultural wars are to be found in most
European countries as well as the US and UK. The revamping of crypto-fascist discourse and
parties should be a worrying development considering lessons from history after the last
worldwide financial crisis in the 1930s.

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any society in history, with the
prison population growing by a factor of 5 since the beginning of the 1980s, with over 2.3 million
people incarcerated, and about another 5 million a parole or probation violation away from being
so (Roeder 2015). Police in the United States killed 1134 people in 2015, more than in any other
year (Swaine, Laughland, Lartey, and McCarthy 2015). Other countries, such as Spain, have
criminalized dissent, levying heavy fines and even imprisonment on protesters (Hedges 2014).

Even countries traditionally known for a tolerant attitude towards dissent, such as France, have
enacted wide-ranging surveillance laws in the aftermath of terrorist attacks (Willsher 2015),
using them not only against suspected terrorists but also against such unwanted dissenters as
environmental groups (Hartmann 2015). Germany has also ignored its own constitutional court
and the European Court of Justice in enacting a wide-ranging and encompassing surveillance
law that stores all electronic communication (Hohmann 2015), and the UK has surpassed these
measures by striving to have encryption made illegal (Hruska 2015). It should be noted, that
compared to the NSA’s panoptic attempt to see, hear, record, and know everything, the
attempts by other countries seem almost amateurish. While some commentators, such as
Beauchamp (2013) point out that the NSA’s spying resembles the Panopticon and thus enforces
“disciplinary power,” creating an “omnipresent fear of being watched”; other commentators point
out that while the “Panopticon does serve as an example, and a metaphor, for the way power
operates...in the easy comparison to the NSA spying, commentators have elided the fact that
the NSA spying is just another symptom of a power apparatus that we otherwise actively
support” (Wolters 2013). The results of this unchecked apparatus of power have been
sufficiently documented above. The question now remains whether there is anything to be done.

One could ask whether these are all unconnected events, whether one should view the policies
that led to many of these events as being just as legitimate as any other policies, whether one
should even attempt to criticize any of the resultant events. Is all for the best in “this best of all
possible worlds”, as noted by Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, and does that mean that
existing society should not be criticized? In these uncertain times, it seems to be well worth
asking, whether a critique of existing society is not still possible, desirable, and absolutely
necessary, should the hope for a better, more decent future, free from domination, drudgery,
and exploitation be possible, worth fighting for, and existentially necessary. Further, any critique
of society also needs to include an account of education and its goals, since whether there even
is anyone able to criticize the shameless exploitative domination being imposed upon society is
dependent upon whether anyone is sufficiently able to analyze and criticize the developments
and willing and able to not buy into the comfortable affluence that is incessantly being stripped
away. The advent of the postmodern age has brought about the notion of the equal validity of
language games, an anti-foundationalism characterized by a disbelief in grand narratives, when
the struggle for liberation is no longer deemed feasible or possible, since alienation cannot be
overcome, as there is nothing with which to legitimate its overcoming, with the ideal of

humanism itself being seen as oppressive. Nevertheless, postmodern discourse can be seen to
be critical in its own right, calling into question the self-legitimating notion of systems based on
the performativity principle, the state’s pursuit of power, the advent of multinational corporations
not bound by any state, and the commercialization of knowledge. The question of what a critical
theory of society is to look like in the postmodern, therefore, has to address the questions of
what is a critical theory of society and what does it say about education; what is postmodern
theory and why does it create difficulties for more traditional critical theory; what does
postmodern theory have to say about education; and whether a critical theory of society is still
possible in the postmodern and what this would look like.

One approach to a critical theory of society was undertaken by a group of scholars collectively
known as the Frankfurt School. Therefore the section after the Introduction will have a look at
who the members of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory in general. The third section will
look at postmodern challenges to the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School. The fourth section
will discuss Jean-Francois Lyotard’s postmodern critique of education and knowledge. The fifth
section will summarize Herbert Marcuse’s take on education. The final section looks at whether
and in which manner and to what extent critical theory is still possible in the postmodern age
and concludes.

2. The Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School is the name of a group of scholars working at the Institute for Social
Research, originally located in Frankfurt am Main, whose social and political philosophy was the
original source for what is called Critical Theory. Among the various issues addressed by the
Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School are included critiques of modernity and capitalism, a
concern with social emancipation and redressing the pathologies of society, a unique take on
Marxist philosophy by evaluating such issues as commodification, reification, fetishization and
mass culture, as well as analyses of the dominating nature of reason, the wholly administered
society, and hopeful looks toward aesthetics. The Frankfurt School operated under the auspices
of Max Horkheimer at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main,
and some of the most well known contributors among its first generation were Theodor Adorno,
Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, Friedrich Pollock, and Walter Benjamin
(Coradetti 2011).
Now, decades after the last of the first generation of the Frankfurt School theorists have passed,
the question poses itself whether one should still be concerned with their writings, what they
have to say about our current condition and predicament, and whether there is still any question
of the continuing relevance of their theories. Although the various members did not always
agree with each other, the analyses of the members of the Frankfurt School are well worth
reexamination in times of the ever-increasing power of international capital, existentially
threatening financial crises, ubiquitous entertainment and distraction, as well as the privatization
of profits and the socialization of losses.

The goal of the Institute under Horkheimer was the development of an interdisciplinary social
theory aimed at bringing about social change that combined philosophy and social theory by
drawing on inter alia sociology, psychology, cultural studies, and political economy. The work of
the Institute in the 1930s produced theories of monopoly capitalism and the role of technology
and corporations therein as well as the roles played by mass culture and communication in
bringing about the decline of democracy and the individual. The transfer from competitive
capitalism to monopoly capitalism meant that the nature of social reality had changed and a new
historical conjuncture was taking place (Kellner 1991). No longer were individuals competing in
the marketplace, but, rather, giant corporations and conglomerates were able to administer
society in their own interest and keep any attempt at dissent at bay.

The advent of Nazi rule in the 1930s forced many of the scholars of the Frankfurt School to
emigrate to the US, where the Institute eventually found a home at Columbia University, though
the members would be spread out working both from New York and the west coast in California.
Members of the Frankfurt School worked for the US government for a time, with Marcuse
creating an enlightening analysis of Hegel, Marx, and social theory in Reason and Revolution
(1941), and joining Neumann as an analyst of Germany. By being able to escape the Nazis and
work in the United States, the theorists of the Frankfurt School were able to bring to bear their
considerable analytic skills not only to an analysis of Fascism, but American society as well.
Their efforts have continued to bear fruit and open the eyes of many to oppression and
domination being carried out in that country as well.

The tragic exception to the relocation to America was Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide
while crossing into Spain from France trying to flee the Nazis (Osborne and Charles 2015).
Benjamin is still seen as a precursor to postmodernism and his analyses, especially The Work
of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction (1936) are still studied and drawn upon in
various analyses of art and culture. For Benjamin: “All efforts to render politics aesthetic
culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the
largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.” In this assessment he is at odds
with other members of the Frankfurt School, for whom aesthetics and art were hopeful avenues
that could lead to a free life.

The Frankfurt School was intensely concerned with the advent of Fascism and Naziism, and
conducted insightful investigations into the structure and methods of totalitarianism. One of the
characteristics of the Frankfurt School approach was a synthesis and reevaluation of Marx and
Freud, though the influence of Nietzsche can also be discerned in many of their writings, thus
completing the triumvirate of the school of suspicion. As noted by Kellner: “Critical theory drew
alike on Hegelian dialectics, Marxian theory, Nietzsche, Freud, Max Weber, and other trends of
contemporary thought. It articulated theories that were to occupy the center of social theory for
the next several decades” (Kellner 1991).

The experience of Nazi Germany cemented the concern of the Frankfurt School with structures
and systems of oppression, though, their resultant analyses were just as critical of Soviet
society, as in Marcuse’s analysis of Soviet Marxism (1958). Whether the critique of Soviet
society by a group of scholars steeped in Marxist philosophy is more or less surprising than their
similar critiques of liberal democratic societies and American society is not to be ascertained
here. It is clear, however, that the analyses of the authors of the Frankfurt School did not shy
away from taking on systems of domination and oppression, whatever their color or political

Arriving in the United States, the members of the Frankfurt School did not find a bastion of
freedom, a bulwark against totalitarianism, a liberal and liberated society, but, rather, a society
in which, they thought, the same methods of alienation and domination were being practiced as
in Nazi Germany. Their critical takes on oppression, alienation and domination were thus not
only directed towards Fascism, though this was undoubtedly their main target, but also against

Soviet society and liberal capitalism. Moreover, not only society and social structures came
under critique, but also the enlightenment itself.

Perhaps the best known tract of the Frankfurt School was Adorno and Horkheimer’s The
Dialectic of Enlightenment (1941) in which they traced the evolution of enlightenment from myth,
tracked the creation of the bourgeois individualist ego through self-denial and repression as far
back as Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssee, and showed how reason and enlightenment themselves
led to oppression and became their opposites. Indeed, for Adorno and Horkheimer:
“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at
liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened
earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002, 1).

The force of this statement has to be taken into account. How can an enlightened earth have
anything to do with calamity and how can the latter be triumphant? The Nazis and Stalin were
eminently rational in their methods of consolidating and exerting power. The concentration
camps and Gulags were run with the utmost efficiency. Indeed, later philosophers agree with
the destructive potentialities of rationality, since as Deleuze and Guattari state: “It is not the
sleep of reason that engenders monsters, but vigilant and insomniac rationality” (Deleuze and
Guattari 1983, 112).

Adorno and Horkheimer painted a dark picture of society in the Dialectic of Enlightenment:

“In their scenario, science and technology had created horrific tools of destruction and
death, culture was commodified into products of a mass-produced culture industry, and
democracy terminated into fascism, in which masses chose despotic and demagogic
rulers...individuals were oppressing their own bodies and renouncing their own desires
as they assimilated and made their own repressive beliefs and allowed themselves to be
instruments of labor and war” (Kellner 1991).

That science and technology are able of destruction and death, that culture can be
commodified, that democracy can be its own death-knell, the renunciation of desire, the
repression of belief, and the instrumentalization of people for labor and war, are themes that
have resonated throughout 20th and 21st century philosophy, not being the sole concern of

Adorno and Horkheimer, but having also been taken up and carried further by other, later
authors. The structure of the Dialectic of Enlightenment was not what one would call a classical
philosophical text, being written in an intractable, allusive, aphoristic style reminiscent of later
postmodern texts, avant la lettre. Adorno has even been mentioned as a precursor of
postmodernism (Zuidevaart 2015), though Adorno was concerned with the liberation of the
working class, a concern allegedly not shared by later postmodern writers. Thus, the Dialectic of
Enlightenment is at once a seminal work, one which introduced concepts that would resonate in
philosophy and social theory, but at the same time was not concerned with clearly elucidating
what the program of the Frankfurt School and its Critical Theory was or able to point the way
toward any exit or possible liberation.

Overviews of Critical Theory can be found in Geuss (1981) and Gmünder (1985, however, to
gain a clearer sense of Critical Theory requires taking a look at the introductory lecture given by
Horkheimer in which he stated what Critical Theory was. According to Horkheimer in Traditional
and Critical Theory (2002) traditional theory is characterized by a number of statements linked
in such a manner that all the other statements are derived from them. Depending on the initial
philosophical outlook of the researcher, the initial statements from which the deduction is carried
out can be inductions, evident insights, or axiomatic arbitrary postulates. He states that
traditional theory tends towards ever-increasing formalization and mathematization, and that
even the human and social sciences have attempted to orient themselves accordingly. Further,
“...all this adds up to a pattern which is, outwardly, much like the rest of life in a society
dominated by industrial production techniques” (Horkheimer 2002, p.191).

This statement is so forceful because one would expect domination by industrial production
techniques exactly in industry and not in the human and social sciences. Are the human and
social sciences not concerned exactly with humanity and society? What do industrial techniques
of domination even have to do with them? It was exactly the loss of humanity and society that
concerned Horkheimer and the elucidation of Critical Theory was meant to point the way
towards a never-ending project of critique and attempts at liberation.

Whether the orientation of human and social sciences towards the mathematical formalism of
traditional theory to be found in the natural sciences has been fruitful and successful is
something that can be poignantly seen in the contemporary and relevant controversy in the

discussion of whether mathematical formalism, “physics envy” in economics -- n.b. no longer
political economy --, did not play a significant role in bringing about the worldwide financial crisis
that began in 2007 and whose aftereffects are still being felt today (Smith 2010). By employing
ever more physicists and mathematicians, the wizards of Wall Street created structures of
monstrous complexity, whose function was the obfuscation of risk and the fleecing of the

The quantification of everything is also evident in the standardized scoring that has been
implemented in many educational systems, especially in the United States, where funding is
contingent upon students being able to score a certain percentage in standardized, mostly
multiple choice tests. The advent of standardized testing has not helped United States students
perform better, since they have actually dropped in rankings, and it is also claimed that this
undermines critical thinking, as students are “taught to the test.”

Not only was Critical Theory concerned with increasing quantification, operationalization, and
instrumentalization, but, according to Horkheimer, Critical Theory was also aware of the socially
situated position of what he termed “the savant,” the theorist or scientist, and that the
investigations conducted were driven by the requirements of industry and not the uninterested
pursuit of truth (Horkheimer 2002). Indeed, later analyses by Lyotard would point out much the
same, so it can be noted here that the critique of the performativity principle is as evident in
Frankfurt School analyses as in Lyotard’s postmodern one.

Critical Theory seeks “emancipation from slavery” by being a “liberating...influence” working “to
create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of all human beings (Horkheimer 1972,
246, cited in Bohman 2005). Nevertheless, according to Bohman, critical theory’s concern with
the liberation of humanity through engaging in social criticism and its pluralist, practical
orientation, without privileging any particular theory or practice or methodology, resulted in a
“fundamental tension...between the empirical and normative aspects of...critical theory oriented
to the realization of human freedom” (Bohman 2005).

Concern with human freedom would lead the investigations of the Frankfurt School not only into
Marxist analyses, but also Freudian psychoanalysis, since what would be the use of liberation
from external fetters if one is still in chains internally. The concern with psychoanalysis would
lead to investigations into what they termed the authoritarian personality (Adorno 1950), a series
of investigations into the personality structure of people who would be likely to adhere to and
support authoritarian or, rather, totalitarian, regimes.

It would seem to be imperative to ask, once again, what exactly makes people support crypto-
proto- or outright fascist regimes? Regimes based on racism, xenophobia, hatred of the other,
exploitation of the weak, and corruption on a large scale to benefit corporations are all hallmarks
of fascist tendencies. Unfortunately, these seem to be occurring with ever more regularity in
places as diverse as Hungary, Poland, Denmark, not to mention France and the United States.

Other investigations of the Frankfurt School would delve even deeper into the workings of the
libido and its repression, finding that liberation from subjugation and oppression could only
come through the liberation of the libido. Marcuse wrote Eros and Civilization (1974) as a
reevaluation of Freudian thought and the text served as theoretical support for the sexual
revolution, though he was denounced by name, along with Freud, by none other than the pope,
as being to blame for the “disgusting and unbridled...animal, barbarous and subhuman
degradations” of the sexual revolution (Whitfield 2014). Later theorists, such as Lyotard in
Libidinal Economy (1993) and Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus (1983) also developed
theories of the libido which were taken up by radical movements.

Marcuse wrote another influential tract called One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of
Advanced Industrial Society (1964) in which he addressed the domination through ideology and
consequent alienation of the subject by what was supposed to be a benign liberal democracy.
The importance of the book was summarized by Marcuse stating that it dealt with the “basic
tendencies in contemporary industrial society” which indicated “a new phase of civilization” that
created a “mode of thought and behavior which undermines the very foundations of the
traditional culture.” The repression undertaken by these modes of thought and behavior could
not be “validated by the prevailing forms of rationality” and consequently meant the “weakening
and even the disappearance of all genuinely radical critique, the integration of all opposition in
the established system” (Marcuse 1964, xii). Indeed, as he stated in Counter-Revolution and
Revolt: “The Western world has reached a new stage of development; now, the defense of the
capitalist system requires the organization of counterrevolution at home and abroad” (Marcuse
1972, 1).

Throughout his writings, Marcuse sought to elucidate the manner and extent of domination,
though he also was concerned with liberation, stating that without “this dreadful competition” the
“fetishism of the ‘productive forces’” could be overcome and could

“gradually reduce the subordination of man to the instruments of his labor, direct
production toward the elimination of alienated labor, while renouncing the wasteful and
enslaving conveniences of the capitalist consumer society. No longer condemned to
compulsive aggressiveness and repression in the struggle for existence, individuals
would be able to create a technical and natural environment which would no longer
perpetuate violence, ugliness, ignorance, and brutality” (Marcuse 1972, 2-3).

What Marcuse was alluding to was the creation of a “qualitatively different totality,” a different
“moral and aesthetic universe” which would “augment the quantity of goods and services” in
order to “abolish all poverty” and “change the quality of existence...the needs and satisfactions
themselves” (Marcuse 1972, 3)..

Thus, the approach of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School was concerned with identifying
modes of oppression and repression, the pernicious effects of instrumental rationality and
incessant quantification, finding out the reasons for aggression and fascistic tendencies, and
addressing the issues of voluntary servitude and alienated labor, among many other analyses.
Although it seems that their analyses were often negative, this is due to their approach, which
called for the overcoming of existing society. Indeed, only through the negation of existing
society could a better world be possible, which is why, for example, Marcuse has a text called
Negations (Marcuse 1988), and Adorno writes Negative Dialectics (Adorno 1973). Nevertheless,
their analyses were not only negative, but contained positive formulations for a better world as
well, which will be looked at later.

The attempt to create a different totality can be seen to place the critical theory in the camp of a
last attempt at fulfilling the promise of modernity to use knowledge and reason to create a better
world. Postmodern theory disputes the notion of totality and indeed notes that attempts at
creating a totality based on knowledge and reason have ended in catastrophe. In tracing the
development of critical theory, Kellner notes that theories associated with structuralism,
poststructuralism and postmodern theory “generated new discourses” that became part of

critical theory generally, with minorities and marginalized groups developing their own “specific
critical theories within a wide range of disciplines” (Kellner 1991). Further, the term critical
theory is used in “diverse and contested ways…[with] not one single or dominant understanding
of critical theory in the university today” (Kellner 1991). Thus it is necessary to examine
postmodern theories both in order to evaluate the challenges they pose for critical theory and
whether they are critical discourses in their own right, capable of addressing some of the
challenges listed at the beginning of the paper.

3. Postmodern challenges to the theories of the Frankfurt School.

Whether we are living in postmodernity, or something called the postmodern; or whether a trend
called postmodernism has infected our culture, including, but not limited to, literature,
architecture, art, music; whether there is something that can be characterized as postmodern
philosophy, which may, or may not, have something to do with, or be the same as,
poststructuralism; or whether we are, indeed, in the post-postmodern; it is undeniable that any
attempt to address our current cultural, social, philosophical, and economic predicament would
have to account at least in some manner for this phenomenon. As noted by The Cambridge
Companion to Postmodernism, attempts to “legislate terminologically...on the difference
between ‘postmodernity’ ....and ‘postmodernism’...were in fact mistakenly tidy-minded
responses to a more fundamental coalescence, in which politics and economy had become
culturalized, art and culture sociologized, and postmodernity itself had become postmodernist”
(Connor 2004, p.4). Indeed, Connor continues to imply that whether one “capitalized or
hyphenated -- ‘post-modern,’ ‘Post-Modern,’ ‘postmodern,’ or “Postmodern,’...along with
whether one chose to refer to ‘postmodernism,’ ‘postmodernity,’ or simply ‘the postmodern,’” did
not matter so much now as it did in the 1980’s, when the terminology used to describe the
phenomenon in question proliferated (ibid). Connor identifies the four stages of accumulation,
synthesis, autonomy, and dissipation in the development of postmodernism, noting that it has
always also “been a project, an effort of renewal and transformation…[posing]...always
questions of value” (Connor 2004, p.5).

Ayelsworth notes in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that while the undefinability of
postmodernism is a truism:

“...it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing
concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to
destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic
certainty, and the univocity of meaning” (Ayelsworth 2015).

Ayelsworth names five French philosophers as paradigmatic of postmodernism: Lyotard,

Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, and Baudrillard. The mention of difference and repetition points to
Deleuze, the trace to Derrida, and the simulacrum and hyperreality to Baudrillard. These were
concepts that the philosophers labeled postmodern or poststructuralists used to destabilize
concepts that had undergirded philosophy.

Although the first use of the word postmodernism dates back to the 19th century, it is since the
late 1970’s that something that can be called a postmodern philosophical approach to making
sense of our world can be discerned. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s seminal The Postmodern
Condition (Lyotard 1979) can be seen to have inaugurated a discourse called postmodern. In
the introduction, Lyotard stated that the term modern designated: “any science that legitimates
itself with reference to a metadiscourse...making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative,
such as the dialectics of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the
rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth” (Lyotard 1979, xxiii). The grand narratives
he alluded to in this section were Hegelian, Phenomenological, Marxist, or liberal capitalist, but
they are not an exhaustive list. A grand narrative he saw as being something that ultimately
served a function of legitimation. The point Lyotard made was that: “if a metanarrative implying
a philosophy of history is used to legitimate knowledge, questions are raised concerning the
validity of the institutions governing the social bond: these must be legitimated as well. Thus
justice is consigned to the grand narrative in the same way as truth” (Lyotard 1979, xxiv).

The questions therefore pose themselves: What are the ultimate foundations which could
provide legitimation for knowledge, institutions, justice or truth? Upon which foundations can a
philosophy which would then in turn be the basis for social institutions and interactions be
based? Can the liberation of the subject really be the ultimate legitimation upon which social
institutions are based? Would a liberated subject live up to the ideals of humanism? Is the
autonomous, rational subject able to accurately apprehend the world?

Questions such as these bothered Lyotard, among other French theorists, in large part due to
the events of May, 1968, which for them became a rupture, a break, with their previous
philosophical allegiances. While many, including Lyotard and Foucault, had been nurtured
intellectually on a Hegelian/Marxist philosophical training, what they saw as the betrayal by the
French Communist Party in May, 1968, led them to distance themselves from any such grand
narrative, which they saw, served not the cause of liberation, but became appropriated by
conservative forces of whichever stripe as forces of domination.

The postmodern condition, stated Lyotard was characterized by a disbelief in grand narratives.
This disbelief means that it is no longer the case that one can base one’s philosophy on a firm
foundation and that therefore any justification for a particular course of action could be called
into question. Furthermore, knowledge itself cannot be certain, since knowledge is created with
certain interests in mind, for other vested interests, and usually as a commodity to be marketed
or sold.

“The relationships of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply
and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by
the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they
produce and consume – that is, the form of value. Knowledge is and will be produced in
order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production:
in both cases, the goal is exchange. Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its
‘use-value’” (Lyotard 1984).

Knowledge, thus, cannot be certain, one cannot count on an uninterested pursuit of it, since
knowledge has become commodified, something to be sold, a point also made by Horkheimer
and noted above. Not only can one not count on knowledge, but one cannot count on science,
since it is one language game among others. Lyotard took the concept of language game from
the later Wittgenstein and radicalized it. If science is a language game among many others,
then it has no pride of place, cannot claim to provide epistemic certainty, not only since there
are other ways of knowing, but also because science is not pursued as an end in itself, but at
the behest of capital, corporations, with the purpose to be used for profit. In this manner,
Postmodernism thus calls into question epistemic certainty and the notion that somehow
scientific progress will lead to the betterment of the world, since one cannot be sure that science

actually delivers certain knowledge or that what science delivers is not being produced due to
vested interest to further an agenda.

This is not the only destabilizing function of Postmodernism since it has to do with:

“the crisis of representation and associated instability of meaning; the absence of secure
foundations for knowledge; the analytic centrality of language, discourses and texts, the
inappropriateness of the Enlightenment tradition assumption of the rational autonomous
subject and a contrasting concentration on the ways in which individuals are constituted
as subjects” (Smart, 1993a:20-3, in Turner ed. 1999: 314).

The anti-humanism noted above calls into question whether one is indeed a rational and
autonomous subject as well as the manner in which one is constituted. The subject is created
by complexes of power and knowledge for Foucault, or is a multiplicity of intensities on the body
without organs for Deleuze and Guattari. There is not anything called “I”; as Nietzsche said, it is
just a manner of speaking. There are drives, intensities, interpellations, but no stable “I”, the ego
cogitans, and consequently no “true I” to be attained once liberated from alienation.

Marx noted in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that alienation was caused
by false consciousness and the worker was alienated four-fold: from him- or herself due to the
drudgery of work; from the product of labor, since as soon as it was created it was taken away;
from fellow workers, since they were in competition for the same jobs; and from the species
being, the essence of humanity (Marx 1959). This notion of alienation was also taken up by
Frankfurt School critical theorists who kept up the humanist ideal of Reason and Freedom.
Postmodernism and poststructuralism, however, have done away with the notion of alienation,
since one does not overcome alienation because this would mean that there is such a thing as a
non-alienated true self that can only be found once one has shed the blinders of ideology. The
Cartesian notion of the cogito, the transcendental subject of pure knowledge of Kant, are no
longer accepted in the postmodern, being consigned to the dustbin of grand narratives in which
we no longer believe.

Seyla Benhabib notes the classical conception as follows:

“The corporeal ethico-moral self was reduced to a pure subject of knowledge, to

consciousness or to mind. The object of knowledge was reduced to ‘matters of fact’ and
‘relations of ideas’, or to ‘sensations’ and ‘concepts’ ...The task of knowledge was to
build an adequate representation of things. In knowledge, mind had to ‘mirror’ nature”
(Benhabib 1984: 106-107).

Richard Rorty, however, a postmodern philosopher in the US states that it is his purpose in
writing to: “...undermine the reader's confidence in "the mind" as something about which one
should have a "philosophical" view, in "knowledge" as something about which there ought to be
a "theory" and which has "foundations," and in "philosophy" as it has been conceived since
Kant” (Rorty 1979: 7).

As postmodern philosophy has not only called into question science, knowledge, humanism, the
ego and the mind, but also reality, with Baudrillard (1995) famously stating that there was only
simulation and simulacra, with there being nothing real anymore to which representation
referred to but only a hyperreality of simulations of simulations and nothing else. Indeed,
Baudrillard stated that the first Gulf War in Iraq never really happened. This controversial claim
might be belied by deaths on the battlefield, but notion that what was being reported around the
clock on television was anything other than spectacle is hard to dismiss.

Postmodern philosophy thus destabilizes any attempt at certainty, calls into question the
rationality and autonomy of subjects, and sees that science is not carried out uninterestedly.
The postmodern approach thus seems to be at odds with the Frankfurt School conception of
critical theory, since there is no certain knowledge which could be accessed by reason to enable
a non-alienated life to be led, since neither knowledge, nor reason, nor a non-alienated life are
certain, but could just be another language game or a local truth. The Frankfurt School thought
that one could carry out an immanent critique based on rational criteria to show that the existing
society did not conform to its own stated ideals. Postmodern philosophy also does not believe in
the ideals of existing society; it does, however, call into question the ability to find rational
criteria which could be used as a foundation upon which to build anything. While Critical Theory
works negatively to find what could be, what could be better, in order to enable a decent life,
postmodern theory works with a multiplicity, saying not that it could and should be thus and so,
or either this or that; but, rather, that it could be this, and this, and this, etc. The advent of
multiplicities are what characterize the postmodern, since the dialectic is no longer confined to
its opposite, but can take on multiple forms subsequently, and each of these multiplicities can
be as good as the next.

4. Postmodern education

In assessing the impact of postmodernism on education, it is necessary to return to the

philosopher who inaugurated postmodern discourse, since, according to Nola (2005), most
postmodern theorizing in education follows “almost word-for-word” Lyotard’s 1984 book The
Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

As noted by Peters (1999) in The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy and Education, Lyotard’s

philosophical interpretation of the changing state of knowledge, science and education argued
that the status of knowledge had permanently altered, becoming an international commodity,
and the basis for state competition, which raised new ethical and legal problems between nation
states, multinational corporations, and the so called third-world. Indeed, The Postmodern
Condition: A Report on Knowledge:

“...is a book which directly addresses the concerns of education, perhaps, more so than
any other single ‘poststructuralist’ text. It does so in a way which bears on the future
status and role of education and knowledge in what has proved to be a prophetic
analysis. Many of the features of Lyotard’s analysis of the ‘postmodern condition’ — an
analysis over fifteen years old – now appear to be accepted aspects of our experiences
in Western societies” (Peters 1999, 2).

Peters notes further the themes Lyotard’s experiences while a doctoral student resulted in many
of the themes he would take up later, to wit:

“in critique of a class monopolisation of knowledge and the mercantilisation of

knowledge and education; in an attack on the “heirarchic magisterial relation” of
pedagogy; in the refusal of a kind of education under capitalism which merely socially
reproduces students to fulfill the technical demands of the system; and in the expression
of a moral ideal embodied in non-dialectical forms of dialogue as the ethical precondition
for pedagogy” (Peters 1999, CIT).

Further, Peters notes that Lyotard predicted the changes in economic and social policy in the
Western world. The ascent of the “so-called ‘new right’” has resulted in education becoming a

subsector of the economy and an enterprise in its own right. No longer is education viewed as a
universal right, but, rather, universities ought to “have skin in the game,” as stated by Jeb Bush
in the introductory quote, and produce students that business needs, and not liberal arts majors
who, again Jeb Bush, “end up working at Chick-fil-a.” Through the lack of any legitimacy of a
grand narrative, the commercialization of knowledge, the reproduction of students according to
the needs of the system, education and science are legitimated through the “principle of
performativity”, and the postmodern condition is one in which the growth of power is the only
concern of the state and any maximizing system becomes self-legitimating. The pursuit of
knowledge is done in order to be able to market it; it becomes a commodity, something which is
poignantly illustrated by presidential candidates and governors telling students that any study of
the humanities would leave them basically unemployable. What is being implied by Bush and
Scott is that students ought to study science, business, finance, math, fields which are in
demand and useful to the established power structure. Whether the ends pursued by the
organizations for which these students will end up working are worth pursuing, is not of any
concern. The main thing is marketability and fungibility, making the knowledge gained a
commodity to be sold and used to make more money.

Lyotard was thus, of course, himself a critical theorist. It is undeniable that the views set forth in
his writings are critical of existing society and concerned with liberation. Thus the question
poses itself as to what Lyotard had to say about the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School.
Lyotard thought that Critical Theory in the hands of Habermas had become a utopia, “still
committed to the universal categories of reason and the subject — albeit the minimal
intersubjective subject of communication – based upon the paradigm of mutual understanding”
(Peters 1999, 7). This he saw as being unrealisable, especially considering his analyses of
power and performativity. That Habermas sought to set forth a theory of perfect communication
in which rational subjects would necessarily agree upon the best path, Lyotard does not deny;
he does, however, note that it is based on universal categories no longer believed in, namely,
“reason and the subject,” but that even this is the “minimal intersubjective subject” which is
unable to account or change the modern world, thus being consigned to utopia.

Jameson notes that, “Lyotard 's discussion of the consequences of the new views of scientific
research and its paradigms, opened up by theorists like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, is
also a thinly veiled polemic against Jürgen Habermas's concept of a ‘legitimation crisis’ and

vision of a ‘noise-free,’ transparent, fully communicational society” (Jameson in Lyotard 1984,
vii). Although the internet has opened up hitherto undreamed of avenues of communication, one
would have to be quite optimistic to believe that a “transparent” society is anywhere in sight.
Knowledge is produced to be sold, obfuscation is the default setting of most institutions, and
noise is all one hears if one watches, or reads, or listens to much of the mainstream media,
which has not already succumbed to the level of an unabashed propaganda spewing idiocy
machine, like Fox News.

One of the biggest narratives Lyotard calls into question is humanism. In The Inhuman:
Reflections on Time (Lyotard 1988), he begins by stating that “Humanism administers lessons
to ‘us’ (?). In a million ways, often mutually incompatible” (Lyotard 1988, 1). Humanism -- as
reason and freedom -- can be seen to have become oppressive in the current conjuncture,
since the freedom to rationally pursue one’s ends -- in this case money -- is what drove the
world economy to the brink of collapse. The changes in financial regulation undertaken since
the 1980s were based on economic theories which postulated a rational, utility maximizing
agent who accurately assessed all possible options and chose the one with the highest utility.
That this was used to legitimate the deregulation of financial regulation is not a subject often
broached. Whether this was a consequence of humanism sei dahingestellt, meaning it is not of
importance here. It suffices to say, however, that the definition of humanism needs to be
addressed, as just saying “reason and freedom” will not do it anymore. Lyotard thus calls into
question the notion of humanism, but does not dismiss out of hand the analyses of the Frankfurt
School theorists who took up the call of critique and liberation before him. Indeed, Lyotard even
shows solidarity with Adorno by defending him against Jauss: “It is not that humanism is simply
a marketing operation. Those who tell ‘us’ (?) off are not all culture-industry hacks. They also
call themselves philosophers” (Lyotard 1988, 2). The mention of the culture industry shows a
certain affinity for the Frankfurt School theorists, which is further elucidated later on:

“The penetration of techno-scientific apparatus into the cultural field in no way signifies
an increase of knowledge, sensibility, tolerance and liberty, Reinforcing this apparatus
does not liberate the spirit, as the Aufklärung thought. Experience shows rather the
reverse: a new barbarism, illiteracy and impoverishment of language, new poverty,
merciless remodeling of opinion by the media, immiseration of the mind, obsolescence
of the soul, as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno repeatedly stressed.

“Which is not to say that one can be content, with the Frankfurt School, to criticize the
subordination of the mind to the rules and values of the culture industry. Be it positive or
negative, this diagnosis still belongs to a humanist point of view. The facts are
ambiguous. ‘Postmodern’ culture is in fact on the way to spreading to all humanity. But
to this same extent it is tending to abolish local and singular experience, it hammers the
mind with gross stereotypes, apparently leaving no place for reflection and education”
(Lyotard 1988, 62).

It thus becomes evident that Lyotard is not dismissing the Frankfurt School analyses and
critiques of society, but rather, very well aware of the difficulty posed by the postmodern
conjuncture, takes up the banner of critique and liberation himself, as will become evident in his
views set forth below. One does have to note the similarities in tone and findings between
Lyotard and the analyses of the Frankfurt School, with Lyotard noting that the extension and
penetration of the “technico-scientific apparatus in the cultural field” or the dissemination of
“instrumental reason” and advent of the “culture industry” resulting in much the same: the lack of
any ability to engage critically with the world, an immiseration of language and imagination, and
a limiting and destruction of possibilities.

How is the state of education in the postmodern, that is now “spreading to all humanity” and in
its inevitable path abolishing “local and singular experience”, thus leveling everything and
denying any authentic experience or “place for reflection and education”?

With regards to education, Lyotard notes:

“That children have to be educated is a circumstance which only proceeds from the fact
that they are not completely led by nature, not programmed. The institutions which
constitute culture supplement this native lack” (Lyotard 1988, 3).

However, it is not the case that culture provides what is human; rather: “the child is eminently
human because its distress heralds and promises things possible. Its initial delay in humanity,
which makes it hostage of the adult community, is also what manifests to this community the

lack of humanity it is suffering from, and which calls on it to become more human” (Lyotard
1988, 3-4).

This somewhat difficult passage imparts the impression that society is what dehumanizes the
child, that the child carries within it the possibilities and promises of eminent humanity, but that
the community, such as it is, is unable, or unwilling to let the child become what it can, and
keeps it hostage, drills it, regiments it, and thus, takes away the “eminently human...promise [of]
things possible.” Indeed, for Lyotard, “All education is inhuman because it does not happen
without constraint and terror” (Lyotard 1988, 4).

Lyotard sees that:

“Development is the ideology of the present time...Development is not attached to an

Idea, like that of the emancipation of reason and of human freedoms. It is reproduced by
accelerating and extending itself according to internal dynamic alone. It assimilates risks,
memorizes their informational value and uses this as a new mediation necessary to its
functioning. It has no necessity itself other than a cosmological chance.” (Lyotard 1988,

The need for ever increasing economic growth is one of the incessant developments driving
society. Development in the educational field is an increase in test scores. Level out all
experience, make all students able to perform the same rote tasks. Make spreadsheet monkeys
able to calculate profit and loss. Development is the growth of the economy at the current
conjecture, one must wait and see whether a system predicated on endless growth can
accomplish its goal with limited natural resources, but, one should also question whether there
is not a spark that cannot be leveled, standardized, and made to abide the given goals of profit
maximization, a spark that gives hope and lets one escape despair.

Lyotard sees further than vulgar profits, seeing the loss of humanity in the need for ever
increasing development:

“Having no end except for the expected life of the sun, development will never cease
and faces no objective challenges other than that. Research programs to overcome that

challenge have been set up in all developed countries. The interest of humans is
subordinate in this to that of the survival of complexity” (Lyotard 1988, 7).

Lyotard concludes:

“And finally, since development is the very thing which takes away the hope of an
alternative to the system from both analysis and practice, since the politics which ‘we’
have inherited from revolutionary modes of thought and actions now turns out to be
redundant (whether we find this a cause for joy or a matter to be deplored), the question
I a raising here is simply this: what else remains as ‘politics’ except resistance to this
inhuman? And what else is left to resit with but the debt which each soul has contracted
with the miserable and admirable indetermination from which it was born and does not
cease to be born? -- which is to say, with the other inhuman? This debt to childhood is
one which we never pay off. But it is enough not to forget it in order to resist it and
perhaps, not to be unjust. It is the task of writing, thinking, literature, arts, to venture to
bear witness to it” (Lyotard 1988, 7).

Writing, thinking, literature, arts, these are exactly what the “rulers of the earth,” as in the quote
from Marcuse at the beginning, do not want, these are exactly what they claim will leave one
unemployable, and if one is as dastardly as to want to study them, then one should pay through
the nose to subsidize other, more useful (!) fields, fields which business and industry need,
fields which will serve the needs of development, which will enable the commodification of
knowledge to continue unabated, will enable the performativity principle to reign supreme, and
will enable the language game of profit maximization, endless economic growth, along with all
the exploitation, drudgery, and indoctrination that go with it to continue unabated.

5. Critical theory and education

Having looked at the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, at the challenges posed by
postmodernism, and at Jean Francois Lyotard’s take on education, it remains to go back to the
Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and evaluate in which manner and to what extent it is still
relevant today, especially regarding education. Space does not permit a comprehensive

analysis, which is why the views of Herbert Marcuse in particular will be looked at in some

Marcuse in One-dimensional man (1964) sets forth the position that the productivity of society is
destructive “of the free development of human needs and faculties, its peace maintained by the
constant threat of war, its growth dependent on the repression of the real possibilities for
pacifying the struggle for existence” (Marcuse 1964, xli). Marcuse’s analyses were often
negative, since the approach of the authors of the Frankfurt School called for the negation of
what was, indeed, that was the function of critical theory, to criticize existing society. While the
capabilities of society become ever greater, so is the domination of society over the individual. It
is the goal of critical theory, therefore, to overcome the facts and to ascertain the objectively
attainable possibilities with the resources of society. However, his later works and were not just
concerned with identifying ills, but also with finding strategies and avenues towards liberation.

In The Individual in the Great Society (Marcuse 2001) Marcuse asks who the individuals in the
Great Society are and how they are educated. The argument he puts forth is that people live in
a society in which they are “subjected to an apparatus which, compromising production,
distribution, and consumption, material and intellectual, work and leisure, politics and fun,
determines their daily existence, their needs and aspirations” (Marcuse 2001, 64-65). In
criticizing life in the “affluent society” Marcuse sets forth the claim that a transfer occurs from
individual agency and responsibility to a “technical or bureaucratic apparatus, from living to
dead labor, from personal to remote control, from a machine (or group of machines) to a whole
mechanized system” (ibid). He further notes that alienated labor must increase, is intensified,
becomes increasingly and transparently irrational and unproductive in sustaining production
through repression. Individuals are thus heteronomously determined by the system and
“alienation reaches the point at which even the consciousness of alienation is largely repressed:
individuals identify themselves with being-for-others” (Marcuse 2001, 65-66).

It seems to be incumbent upon us to take seriously Marcuse’s claim that once this has
happened “society calls for an Enemy against whom the prevailing conditions are to be
defended and against whom the aggressive energy which cannot be channeled into the normal,
daily struggle for existence can be released…[since the] Enemy is not one factor among
others…--his existence is a determining factor at home and abroad, in business and education

in science and relaxation” (Marcuse 2001, 65-66). While Marcuse was writing during the
Vietnam War, one can argue that the developments since September 11th, 2001, have been
even more dramatic, with the so-called “War on Terror” taking over varied aspects of material
armaments production, worldwide military deployment, police repression, ubiquitous
surveillance, and media saturation with images of indoctrination and the creation of fear.

One only has to look for a few minutes at Fox News, glance at the headlines of any major
European tabloid, such as Bild in Germany, or the Sun in the UK, to see how the portrayal of the
Enemy, in this case a method, Terror, has been determining reality for the past 15 years.

Marcuse noted himself that he found the events of May 1968 in France striking, since there
were certain parallels between some of the views he set forth in An Essay on Liberation
(Marcuse 1969) and those of militant students who almost overthrew the government of France.
While Marcuse states that the “radical utopian character” of the demands of the students
involved in the revolt surpassed his demands, he approvingly notes that they were formulated in
“the course of action itself; they are expressions of concrete political practice” (Marcuse 1969).
The union or separation of theory and praxis has been a challenge of Marxian and radical
thought since its inception. Here Marcuse sees that regardless of whether the actions of the
students are successful, they had reached a turning point. “In proclaiming the ‘permanent
challenge’ (la contestation permanente), the ‘permanent education,’ the Great Refusal, they
recognize the mark of social repression, even in the most sublime manifestations of traditional
culture, even in the most spectacular manifestations of technical progress” (Marcuse 1969 ix).
The Great Refusal is thus when one resists not only the repressive, oppressive, and exploitative
aspects of society but also its enticements and achievements. Indeed, in Art in the One-
dimensional Society Marcuse echos Thomas Mann’s call to “revoke the Ninth Symphony since it
is a justification of that ‘illusion’ which is no longer justifiable” (Marcuse 2001, 122).

To return to Marcuse’s take on the student revolts in 1968, he continues in An Essay on


“They have raised a specter (and this time a specter which haunts not only the
bourgeoisie but all exploitative bureaucracies): the specter of a revolution which
subordinates the development of productive forces and higher standards of living to the

requirements of creating solidarity for the human species, for abolishing poverty and
misery beyond all national frontiers and spheres of interest, for the attainment of peace.
In one word: they have taken the idea of revolution out of the continuum of repression
and placed it into its authentic dimension: that of liberation ” (Marcuse 1969 ix-x).

Here is the challenge to resist all forms of exploitation be they from whichever bureaucracy, and
this resistance can take the form of simply refusing to take part in any repressive or exploitative
aspects that society offers, with the seductions and enticements also refused.

Marcuse thought that “the world of human freedom cannot be built by the established societies”
since the class structures and controls created to perpetuate that structure created “needs,
satisfactions, and values which reproduce the servitude of the human existence,” a servitude
that had become voluntary since it had been introjected and thus justified “the benevolent
masters.” The servitude could be “broken only through a political practice which reaches the
roots of containment and contentment,” a practice of “disengagement from and refusal of the
Establishment, aiming at a radical transvaluation of values.” Radical new ways of “seeing,
hearing, feeling, understanding” were necessary in order to enable one to become able to live
without aggression and exploitation. This refusal is what binds together all who would be free of
exploitation and oppression:

“No matter how remote from these notions the rebellion may be, no matter how
destructive and self-destructive it may appear, no matter how great the distance
between the middle-class revolt in the metropoles and the life-and death struggle of the
wretched of the earth — common to them is the depth of the Refusal. It makes them
reject the rules of the game that is rigged against them, the ancient strategy of patience
and persuasion, the reliance on the Good Will in the Establishment, its false and immoral
comforts, its cruel affluence” (Marcuse 1969, 5-6).

A summary of Herbert Marcuse’s views on education can be found in Marcuse’s Challenges to

Education (Kellner 2006), where Kellner states that the engagement of Marcuse with education
“involves radical critique of the existing system of education and the search for emancipatory
alternatives” (Kellner 2006). Kellner further notes that Reitz’s Art, Alienation and the Humanities
(2002) provides a “serious and sustained analysis of the implications of Marcuse’s thought for

education” (Kellner 2006). Reitz’s analysis showed that Marcuse mediated between the
humanities and the sciences, and brought about an Aufhebung, sublation, of the polarity
between idealism and scientific empiricism. Marcuse combined philosophy, social theory,
aesthetics and radical politics in order to “mediate aesthetic education, the humanities, and the
sciences with a critical theory of the contemporary era and a radical politics aiming at
emancipation and a non-repressive society” (Kellner 2006, 6).

Marcuse held that alienation “was thought to be the result of training people to forget their
authentic human potentials -- by educationally eradicating the realm where this knowledge was
considered to be best preserved, that is, in the humanities” (Kellner 2006, 233). The obsession
with standardization, quantification, mechanization, and specialization would serve only the
military, commerce, and industry. Further, this “fetish involves aspects of repression,
fragmentation, and domination that impede real education and preclude the development of real
awareness of ourselves and our world” (ibid). The mis-education or half-education would lead to
the acceptance of “sensual anaesthetization and social amnesia as normal.” Indeed,
“Conditioned to a repressive pursuit of affluence, making a living becomes more important that
making a life” (ibid).

Marcuse thus developed critiques of the repressive and affluent society and the heteronomy
therein. He saw that the concerted drive to eradicate the humanities was a strategy used to
make people forget their human potential. He recognized that obsessive standardization and
quantification would not lead to a real education and that mis-education would lead to
conformity and acceptance of repression in an affluent society. Nevertheless, Marcuse also
called for revolt, for The Great Refusal to participate in any of the repressive and exploitative
occupations of the affluent society. The question thus poses itself of what a critical theory of
education would look like today, after postmodern analyses, with the advent of computerization,
new technologies, and globalization among many other challenges.

6. Conclusion: Critical Theory in the postmodern.

The previous sections have delineated the critical theory of the Frankfurt School and noted that
they were concerned with liberation, overcoming alienation, and escaping the oppressive
features of rationality, technology, and one-dimensional society. Aspects of the thinking of

Horkheimer and Adorno were looked at, showing their concern with the pernicious effects of
instrumental rationality in the administered society. Marcuse’s views were summarized and
Marcuse’s take on education elucidated. The concern with education is especially relevant, as
recent developments have brought about changes in the educational systems of Western
countries, especially the United States, which seem to lead down a road of specialization in
majors that are useful to business and industry, and a devaluing of the humanities including
critical theory. Both the Critical Theorists of The Frankfurt School as well as postmodern
theorists such as Jean Francois Lyotard recognized and identified the pernicious effects of the
liquidation of the humanities, and the dangers inherent in a mechanized society concerned only
with development.

Postmodern approaches were also addressed, with the thinking of Jean Francois Lyotard being
looked at as having inaugurated postmodern discourse. Lyotard noted that knowledge had
become commercialized, that grand narratives were no longer legitimating since they were no
longer believed in, that multiple language games could not claim any legitimacy over any other,
and that the principle of performativity governed all systems leading states to seek only more

It became evident in the analysis that although there is no one overarching postmodern
approach, the analyses of the postmodern theorists are also critical approaches, even though
they call into question so many of the traditional foundations of philosophy. Postmodern theory
calls into question the autonomous rational subject, which has access to reality through reason
and can thus overcome alienation and ideology and lead a non-alienated free life. Further, since
knowledge has become instrumentalized and commercialized, ideology ubiquitous, language
games equally valid, there is no guarantee that any attempt at bringing about a non-alienated
life will not be oppressive. The postmodern fight against totality and attempts at totalizing result
in there only being local truths, which are valid locally, but not generally or globally.

The Frankfurt School approach to Critical Theory, which still set forth the notions that a non-
alienated existence was possible, that one could, through reason and freedom, overcome
ideology and false consciousness, was thus challenged by postmodern theory, though not
completely dismissed or overcome since both were concerned with liberation and overcoming

Best and Kellner (1991), however, argue that while postmodern theory has carried out “radical
critiques and some productive reconstruction of modern theory and politics,” it is characterized
by a “too extreme rejection of normative perspectives and modern theory” (Best and Kellner
1991, ch4). Further, they note that postmodern approaches are not helpful in dealing with the
intense and increasing problems of the globalization of capital and are limited by a lack of
normativity. They therefore call for a congruence or mediation of modern and postmodern
approaches to create “new politics to deal with the problems of capitalist globalization,
environmental crises, species extinction, terrorism, and the failure of conventional politics to
provide social justice and well-being for all” (ibid).

Nevertheless, both postmodernism and the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School are critical of
existing society. While Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse passed away before the advent of
postmodernism, one does not need to be dismissive of their findings and theories. Changing
times call for changing approaches, and the changing nature of knowledge pointed out by
Lyotard, the computerization of everything, the advent and spread of the Internet, were not able
to be seen by the members of the Frankfurt School in their time. The impact of the Critical
Theory of the Frankfurt School has not completely faded, however, with authors such as Kellner
still putting forth analyses based on their theories and pointing out the importance of hanging on
the normative aspects of their critique. The Frankfurt School did not just analyze what was
wrong and leave it at that, checking in to the “Hotel Abyss” (Lanning 2013). They also set forth
positive visions of a better world and a life free from domination, exploitation, and drudgery. The
question thus poses itself of what a critical theory of education would look like today, after
postmodern analyses, with the advent of computerization, new technologies, and globalization
among many other challenges.

Kellner (2003) develops a critical theory of education in which he states which traditional
aspects of education are to be “overcome and what alternative pedagogies and principles
should reconstruct education in the present age.” Kellner proposes “developing multiple
literacies as a response to new technologies, developing alternative critical pedagogies to meet
the challenges of globalization and multiculturalism, and promoting radical democratization to
counter the trend toward the imposition of a neo-liberal business model on education.” Further,
Kellner seeks to synthesize classical perspectives on education, radical pragmatism, critical
pedagogy, poststructuralism, and other critical theories. In this endeavor, the “obsolete idealist,
elitist and antidemocratic aspects of traditional concepts of education” are to be criticized
(Kellner 2003, 1-2). Indeed, Kellner notes that some of the philosophical aspects of classical
theories of education are dated and that consequently “the poststructuralist critique of modern
theory provides important tools for a critical theory of education in the present age” (Kellner
2003, 6). By recognizing the importance and validity of poststructuralist critical theory for the
reformulation of a critical theory of education, Kellner incorporates more recent theoretical
developments while keeping the critical aspect of critical theory. The recognition of the critical
aspects of poststructuralist theory shows that it is not conservative, as stated by Habermas
(1981), but rather itself a critical theory in its own right, and recognition of its findings should be
taken into account in developing a new conception of a critical theory of education.

Poststructuralist thought emphasizes the “importance of difference, marginality, heterogeneity,

and multiculturalism” and calls attention to “dimensions of experience, groups, and voices that
have been suppressed in the modern tradition” (Kellner 2003, 6-7). Poststructuralist critical
theories engage with race, sexuality, class, and gender and show the social construction of
reality which can also be reconstructed. Further, they include a “reflexive turn...requiring
individuals involved in education and politics to reflect upon their own subject-position and
biases, privileges and limitations” (Kellner 2003, 7). This process of constantly rethinking and
reflecting assumptions and positions prevents critical theory from becoming dogmatic, rigid,
petrified by structures of power and domination.

Kellner summarizes an inclusive philosophical vision of education:

“Building on these perspectives enables a philosophy of education to develop more

inclusive philosophical vision and to connect education directly to democratization and
the changing of social relations in the direction of equality and social justice. Since social
conditions and life are constantly changing, a critical theory of education must be
radically historicist, attempting to reconstruct education as social conditions evolve and
to create pedagogical alternatives in terms of the needs, problems, and possibilities of
specific groups of people in concrete situations. Yet philosophical and normative insight
and critique is also needed, driving efforts at reconstructing education and society by
visions of what education and human life could be and what are their specific limitations
in existing societies” (Kellner 2003).

Thus the philosophy of education set forth by Kellner takes into account both the critical aspect
of the Frankfurt School as well as the locality required after postmodern analyses. No longer
can a globalizing vision that encompasses the totality be sought after, but, rather, a philosophy
of education must be able to address the issues faced by “specific groups of people in concrete
situations.” This concern with local situations and the resistance to totalization are the result of
the incisive analyses of postmodern and poststructuralist philosophers. By insisting that
“philosophical and normative insight and critique” are also needed, Kellner strives to synthesize
critical theory and postmodern and poststructuralist thinking. The attempt is laudable and it is
hoped that it will also be fruitful.

Whether freedom from drudgery and exploitation, social justice and well-being are then local
and not global is not necessarily of the highest import. Local language games can be invented
which will counteract the increasing mercantilization of knowledge, commodification of
education, increase of inequality, exploitation, oppression, surveillance, consequent
desperation, and -- dare one say it -- alienation of 50%, 90%, or 99% of the world, according to
current statistics. The listing of problems and unfortunate developments at the beginning of the
paper was intended to show that there is indeed enough to be critical about in our current
historical conjuncture. The advent of neoliberalism has brought with it a discourse of
commodification, mercantilization, standardization, and imposed its market logic on almost
every area of life. The results have been obscene gains for the very rich and war, terrorism,
sacrifice, surveillance, poverty and ridicule for the rest. These are developments that were seen
well in advance by both the Frankfurt School and the postmodern and poststructural theorists
who took up the call of critique. It is hoped that findings from both these lines of thought,
critique, and resistance can be brought together to enable resistance and the creation of
alternative modes of being, with lives lived not under the yoke of capital but joyfully and playfully
affirmative of the endless possibilities of life.

Overcoming the values of accumulation espoused by society and held up to be the highest
good; resisting the indoctrination that increasing shareholder value is good for everyone;
choosing what one wants to learn instead of what is purported to pay better upon graduation;
refusing to partake in ever-more exploitative and ever-less remunerative and precarious
employment; overcoming repression or commodification of sexuality and freeing libidinal energy
to manifest itself playfully in self-chosen work, play, or sexuality; these are topics upon which
this author thinks both a Frankfurt School associated author such as Herbert Marcuse and a
postmodern founder of discursivity such as Jean Francois Lyotard would have agreed upon.
Thus, a critique of society should take into account multiple critical perspectives, something
Lyotard would assent to, as well as strive towards liberation, something Marcuse fought for until
his death. The radical tendencies Marcuse’s thought supported or was affiliated with in the
1960s and 1970s seem to have brought about a dialectical reversal in the other, conservative
direction, whose effects are still being felt. One would hope that the dialectic has not been
entirely liquidated but has changed and that in accordance with postmodern analyses, multiple
avenues for change can open up to help bring about a better world.

Are there any prescriptive avenues to be found after the analysis above? In accordance with
Marcuse, one can simply refuse to play the game. One can decide that ever-increasing
consumption is not what one wants to do with one’s life. One can decide that working ever-
longer hours for ever-less remuneration is not what one’s purpose on this planet is. One can
refuse to become “man in debt”, as contemporary methods of control are characterized so
poignantly by Deleuze (1995). Don’t believe in fake patriotism; don’t buy the fairy tale of a great
“other” Enemy; don’t accept ubiquitous surveillance; and don’t support the system, either
actively or tacitly. Refusal to believe in official narratives is what unites both the Frankfurt School
and Lyotard, and one would have to be willingly blind to accept any official narrative after the
events of the last decades. Freeing oneself from external and internal methods of control
requires educating oneself as to how they work and recognizing them in practice. One after the
other we can shed the fetters of indoctrination and find new ways of thinking, feeling, speaking,
playing, and interacting with each other and the world. With knowledge having become
commodified; with schools having taken up the function of creating fodder for the mills of
business and industry; with an endless war upon a method having been declared and there
being no end in sight; it becomes clear that it is only by refusing to play the game and believe
the narrative that we can open up new avenues of existence and experience that could free us
from the fetters that bind us, be they ideological, interpellated, and thus internal, or oppressive
and exploitative, and thus external. The theorists have identified the problems and shown us
avenues for escape; it is up to us to put them in practice and live a liberated life, as long as it is
still possible to do so and we are still able to think critically and hope for a better life.

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